Genetically Modified Mustard: Is it the Right Decision for India?

Mustard is a widely used spice/condiments in the entire world which is prepared from the seeds of mustard plant. There are variety of mustard plants such as white or yellow mustard (Sinapis alba), brown or Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) and black mustard (Brassica nigra). As mustard is the central cooking ingredient of Indian cuisine, it is required in higher amounts. India imports approximately INR 60000 crore worth of edible oils every year, which is the main reason to increase the domestic crop yield of mustard to reduce the dependence on imports. To increase the crop yield, a new variety of genetically modified (GM) mustard seeds Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11) has been developed from Brassica juncea by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University using genetic modification (GM) technology or genetic engineering. The commercialization of GM mustard in India is facing strong opposition and has became a topic of major controversy.

Genetically modified crop is obtained by crossing two genetically distinct plants of same species to give new traits. Researchers have used “barnase/barstar” technology in which a barnase gene is isolated from a non-pathogenic soil bacterium, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The barnase gene codes for a protein barnase that impairs the pollen production in a plant making its male sterile. The barnase is lethal to the cells when expressed without its inhibitor ‘barstar’. This male-sterile variety is crossed with a parent variety having a gene called ‘barstar’ to block the action of barnase gene. The resulting variety is a fertile plant, having both foreign genes and it can increase yield of the crop. To develop the DMH-11, Early Hira mutant (EH2) is used as parent.

The DMH-11 has been claimed to give 25% to 30% more yield than all the available best varieties that are currently used. It has been concluded by a technical sub-committee of India’s genetic engineering regulator that DMH-11 is shown to be “safe” for food or feed and environment.

Few scientists and activists have clear objection for the commercialization of GM mustard due to some serious adverse effects of the GM crops. The main reason for its objection is the hybridization using alien genes. Though GM technology is already commercialized in India by Bt cotton, but it is argued that cotton is not a food crop and the use of GM mustard can adversely affect the human and animal health. Another GM crop, Bt brinjal was approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in 2009 facing strong opposition. Bt brinjals, when tested on rats have shown allergenicity, tumorogenicity, high mortality and infertility of off spring, poor growth, damage to liver, pancreas, and gut lining and affects immune system. According to a GM-Free India coalition, the GM mustard increasing yield by at least 25% is misleading because researchers have compared the hybrid to conventional varieties that tend to be less productive. The GM crops could also reduce biodiversity which is vital to plant survival. As a result, the plants will not adapt to external changes and food production will be in jeopardy.

The farmers are also anxious over GM mustard, because they have already tasted blood in past with Monsanto-made GM crops. These seeds either failed to grow, or caused unstoppable superweeds and superbugs leading to financial ruin, debt, starvation and suicides. In a sad twist of irony, many farmers took their lives by drinking the same pesticides provided to them by Monsanto. Many farmers in India cannot even afford these herbicides or pesticides.. Unlike traditional farming, where the farmers can save some of their harvest to be cultivated next year; the GM seeds are more expensive and carry a ‘terminator gene’ that makes the seeds useless for replantation and thus farmers have to buy them every year.

The seed weight of DHM-11 is around 3.3 to 3.5 gm/1000 seeds (very small seed size, which is generally not preferred by farmers) as compared to new varieties. The DHM-11 has not been developed for any specific trait such as specific disease and pest resistance. Glufosinate (Basta), herbicide used for seed production of DMH-11 is very harmful for environment and its use will increase if this technology is commercialized. It is more harmful than the commonly used glyphosate which has been declared a cancer causing agent by the leading International Cancer Institute (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some previous studies have reported ill effects of GMO food. Séralini, a French molecular biologist conducted a 2-year feeding study in rats and reported that GM corn causes kidney and liver damage, tumors in rats being fed on GMO corn (Séralini et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2012; 50(11):4221-4231). The study was quite controversial and came to be known as “The Séralini affair”. Séralini showed pictures of rats with large tumors that were likely to die early after eating Monsanto’s genetically modified maize, whether or not it was treated with the weed killer. His study was retracted in November 2013 due to concerns about validity of the findings and the proper use of animals. Surprisingly, Elsevier emphasized that there was no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation but the findings were simply “inconclusive.” The study was condemned for statistical insufficiency, methodology and  age and strain of mice used for the study. The study was later republished in a Springer journal “Environmental Sciences Europe” a year after (Séralini et al. Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2014; 26:14). Séralini responded to all the concerns in a paper published in Plos One in 2014. Séralini supporters alleged that the study was retracted due to lobbying and influence of the companies involved in production of GMO seeds. A crucial observation of this study was that long term use of GMO corn led to tumors and the FDA approval was sought after conducting short term studies.

In case of DMH-11, the EH-2 is used as parent for hybrids without the recognition of the fact that it was developed at Nagpur University, which is also unethical. It has also been claimed that the field trials for GM mustard are not conducted properly. The trials were conducted in the open fields, which is against environmental norms as it can introduce herbicide tolerant food crop in India. Moreover, mustard is pollinated by wind and insects and the entire mustard crop in India would be contaminated if this new technology was adopted. The after-effects of GM crops appear in long term and can be detrimental to the environment. Superweeds grow with GM crops and have higher resistance, thus, requiring greater amount of pesticides with time.

The results of biosafety trials and nutritional biosafety and cattle feeding studies conducted by the National Institute for Nutrition (NIN) Hyderabad are not shown in public domain yet. The Research and Development (R&D) of GM seeds in India is still in an infant stage and majority of the seeds would have to be obtained from foreign companies, thereby making India heavily dependent. Further, the GM crops are immune to antibiotics and their consumption by human beings can lead to anti-microbial resistance among them, thus, rendering antibiotics ineffective in case of disease.

We should rather scale up our techniques for a better production. One GM crop might pave the way for another and slowly make to out dinning tables. We should be cautious in making the decision of introducing GM crops in our country.

Chandni Verma

Dr. Shivali Arora

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